Authentic leadership: the great and the toxic

Written by
Stephen Bungay

13 Sep 2016

13 Sep 2016 • by Stephen Bungay

New beginnings, unclear endings

By the time of its party convention in July, the Republican Party will have nominated its candidate to run for the Presidency of the United States. The process so far has held not only America but the world in appalled disbelief. With disturbing echoes of Europe in the 1930’s, a xenophobic, misogynistic demagogue has become the leading candidate.

In 1860, that same Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln to run for President.  Along with Washington and Roosevelt, Lincoln has consistently been rated among the greatest figures to have held that great office. For all the mass of information we have about him, we will never know what Lincoln was really like. However, Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Lincoln’ offers a portrait of the man that has a ring of truth about it.   

The film covers the last four months of the Civil War and of Lincoln’s life. The central drama is not the war, but Lincoln’s efforts to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed by the House of Representatives before the war ended. The Amendment consisted of two single-sentence sections which abolished slavery in the United States.

"When he really wanted to get through to people, he abandoned formality and scripts. Instead, he told stories."

Qualities of a leader...

Spielberg’s portrayal shows some human qualities which explain why Lincoln stands in such high regard as the supreme commander of a country at war and as the leader of a nation. 

The first quality is clarity of thought. That clarity was the result of two things: the espousal of a rigorous set of principles and the intellectual power to translate those principles into a remorseless logic which drove his actions.

Lincoln had not entered the war to abolish slavery, but to maintain the Union and prevent the expansion of slavery into new states. The progress of the war led to an expansion of the principles at stake. By late summer of 1862, Lincoln had accepted that slavery had to be abolished and from then on he was unyielding.  Abolition became a war aim and was maintained until it was achieved. Others bought into parts of the package but for Lincoln the package was indivisible. Nobody else ‘got it’ as he did. It was simple: ‘We must cure ourselves of slavery. This amendment is that cure.’  

The second quality is pragmatism. Lincoln was neither dogmatic nor fanatical.  He combined his determination to act on principle with an unrelenting grip on reality, including the realities of human nature. Precisely because of his iron grip on the principles at stake he was prepared to do almost anything to achieve the outcomes which counted.

The third quality is passion. The passion drove an unquenchable resolve to see things through, and could manifest itself in displays of emotion.

For the most part, Lincoln rides the storm-tossed waters of his time with apparent equanimity. He rarely raises his voice. Confronted by his enemies, he is calm and collected. But occasionally, only with those closest to him, his cabinet and his family, he displays anger.  

At one point, Lincoln loses his temper with his cabinet as they prevaricate. He jumps up and slams his fist on the table. ‘I need this’, he cries. He summons up the magnitude of the cause, ‘We are stepped out upon the world stage now. The fate of human dignity is in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment. Now, now, now!’  

The fourth quality is a humility grounded in basic humanity. He understands and recognises the failings of others and himself. He is humble in knowing that though he holds a great office, he shares his humanity with all.  He has no need to boost his ego by taking seriously the trappings of power. He is a pure vessel, a servant of his cause.  His greatness comes from his cause and his subservience to it.

The main vehicle through which his humanity is expressed is his manner of communication. Lincoln knew that speeches have their limits. When he really wanted to get through to people, he abandoned formality and scripts. Instead, he told stories.

The stories come unexpectedly. Their point is not always immediately obvious, but they are always told for a reason. They usually make a point about his values and are usually humorous. Laughter is a great leveller. Early on, he tells one from the time when he was a young lawyer, when he was defending an elderly woman who had killed her husband in self-defence. Lincoln asked to see her in his room and left the window open. She was never seen again.  Lincoln and his listeners all chuckle. Why tell that tale? It was at a point when Lincoln wanted to remind people that justice is not always the same as legality, that law is just an instrument, that following the letter of it is sometimes pointless. What good would it do anyone to convict a 77-year-old woman? Lincoln never spells out the lessons of the stories. But he is about to bend the rules for the sake of getting the votes he needs.

‘Lincoln’ is a film about a remarkable man. Most of us are unremarkable. A few of us are nevertheless called upon to don the robes of power for a while. We should not forget that they are just clothes, given to us by others for a purpose. Those clothed in power need to articulate the purpose they serve. If they speak as ordinary men, telling funny little stories, they may become great leaders, for then people will follow them. In this way, ordinary men can achieve remarkable things.

Lincoln was authentic and spoke his mind. The 2016 candidate is also authentic and speaks his mind. He has passion and can connect with common people. Clarity of thought and power of intellect, pragmatism and humility are less in evidence. His connection with his followers is not through common humanity, but through anger, fear and hatred.  Authenticity in itself does not make great leaders. Toxic ones can have it too.  

In 2016, America is tearing itself apart over issues which have some of their roots in the ones which tore it apart in 1860.  At the same time, Europe is threatening to fall apart. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’, observed Lincoln in 1858. We in the West need more of Lincoln’s sort. We need them now.  ‘Now, now, now!’       

Stephen teaches on the Strategic Decisions and Making Strategy Happen programmes at Ashridge Executive Education.